The New York Draft Riots

The first enforced Federal military draft began in accordance with the Enrollment Act passed in March. In major northern cities, the names of men eligible for the draft were placed in wheels and randomly drawn until quotas were met. The notion of being forced into the military added to growing northern resentment of both the war and the Lincoln administration.

That resentment was especially strong in New York, one of the few northern states dominated by anti-administration politicians. Governor Horatio Seymour loudly denounced President Abraham Lincoln’s unconstitutional attacks on civil liberties, and New York City, the largest city in the North, was led by an anti-administration mayor. Of the city’s major newspapers, the World and the Journal of Commerce were openly hostile to Lincoln, and the Herald was often critical as well. Only the Times and the Tribune tended to favor Lincoln’s handling of the war.

The governor and the mayor did little to allay fears among the city’s massive immigrant population that blacks freed by the Emancipation Proclamation might come north and take their jobs while they were being drafted to fight a war they did not support. Especially repulsive to potential draftees was the provision allowing men to hire substitutes or pay $300 to avoid military service.

For two days, Federal officials drew names in New York’s Ninth District Provost Marshal’s office at 677 Third Avenue. Resentment built as those names appeared in city newspapers. The anger boiled over on the third day, when a mob of predominantly Irish laborers descended on the draft office around 10 a.m. They threw rocks through the windows and broke down the door. Officials were beaten and chased off, the lottery wheel was destroyed, and the building was burned. The violence quickly spread to the point that police were powerless to stop it.

Tens of thousands of rioters rampaged through the city burning businesses, hotels, police stations, and the mayor’s home. Over 1,000 rifles were looted from the Second Avenue armory. Rioters burned the ground floor of the Tribune office; employees of the Times used three Gatling guns to keep the mob from destroying their building. Protestors targeted wealthy-looking men, screaming, “Down with the rich!” and attacking anyone suspected of being “a $300 man.” The mob also attacked businesses in which workers had been replaced by automation, such as grain-loading elevators and street sweepers.

Rioting in New York | Image Credit:

The rioters soon turned their wrath on blacks, whom they felt were responsible for causing the war. Blacks were randomly beaten, tortured, and killed, as the mob began “chasing isolated Negroes as hounds would chase a fox.” Several blacks were hanged on lampposts, including a crippled coachman who was also burned as the mob chanted, “Hurrah for Jeff Davis!” The Colored Orphan Asylum on Fifth Avenue was burned, but police saved most of the 229 orphans. Businesses employing blacks were also burned. A reporter for Harper’s Weekly wrote:

“A mob of men and boys seized an unfortunate Negro cartman of Carmine Street on Monday evening. Having beaten him until he was in a state of insensibility, they dragged him to Clarkston Street and there hung him from a branch of one of the trees that shade the sidewalk by St. John’s Cemetery. The fiends did not stop here, however. Procuring long sticks, they tied rags and straws to the end of them, and with these torches they danced round their victim, setting fire to his clothes and burning him almost to a cinder.”

A heavy rain helped extinguish the fires, but the riot continued for two more days. President Lincoln received reports of the violence from Tribune managing editor Sydney H. Gay, and they added to the anxiety he already had from the Confederate army escaping to Virginia after the Battle of Gettysburg. Troops were pulled from the Army of the Potomac and directed to help restore order in New York, even though Governor Seymour did not request Federal intervention.

The unrest increased on the 14th as rioters stopped streetcars, cut telegraph wires, and wrecked railroad tracks. They seized blacks from restaurants and other places of employment, including foreign blacks aboard a British ship at port. Some rioters attacked the New York Tribune offices again, shouting, “We’ll hang (managing editor) Horace Greeley to a sour apple tree!”

By the 15th, rioters controlled New York City. A witness stated that “three objects–the badge of a defender of the law, the uniform of the Union army, the skin of a helpless and outraged race–acted upon these madmen as water acts upon a rabid dog.”

The War Department hurried several regiments to help the police, along with cadets from West Point and men from the forts in New York Harbor under Major-General John E. Wool. All Federal naval vessels in the area were called to provide aid as well; Commander Hiram Paulding soon had a gunboat squadron in the harbor, ready to shell the city if necessary.

Workers joined the rioters in attacking the homes of prominent Republicans, as Seymour unsuccessfully tried to stop the violence. An announcement suspending the draft in New York and Brooklyn eased the riot somewhat, but it did not completely end until Federal troops arrived. Many rioters were killed at Gramercy Park as the Federals used artillery and bayonets to stop their advance.

Civilian resistance against authority ended soon after, and peace was finally restored by the 17th. City merchants quickly organized a relief effort for black victims of the rioting and their families. The Democrat-controlled New York City Council approved a measure authorizing the use of tax revenue to pay commutation fees for those who could not afford to buy their way out of the draft.

This was the worst draft and race riot in American history. An estimated 50,000 people participated in the lawlessness, in which 105 were killed and at least 2,000 injured. Property damage was assessed at $1.5 million, with 50 buildings destroyed. However, one scholar determined that the death toll was not nearly as high as the sensational newspaper accounts claimed (the New York Tribune claimed that 350 had died); most people had not “died anywhere but in the columns of partisan newspapers.”

Smaller riots occurred in Boston; Portsmouth, New Hampshire; Rutland, Vermont; Wooster, Ohio; and Troy, New York. Lincoln rejected calls to create a commission to investigate the cause of the rioting because the findings would “have simply touched a match to a barrel of gunpowder… One rebellion at a time is about as much as we can conveniently handle.”

Some urged an indefinite draft suspension, and Democrats sought to have it declared unconstitutional. However, Lincoln insisted that the draft continue.


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